A couple of weeks ago, one of my Twitter friends asked me an interesting question. The Ravens are the odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl, and while Baltimore boasts the league’s most explosive offense and a super-revitalized defense, there is one glaring omission from Baltimore’s playoff résumé: experience. George’s excellent question (to which I’m sorry it took so long to respond) was whether or not playoff inexperience will be Baltimore’s Achilles heel in the hunt for the franchise’s third Super Bowl title.
Chris, just thinking out loud. What about an article on – Do the Ravens have what it takes to be a Superbowl contender? We have a lot of key players that have never been in this type situation before. Will playoff inexperience be our Achilles heel?
— George Seidle (@GeorgeSeidle) December 26, 2019
Before I can give an answer, it is important to examine the roster and determine how much playoff experience actually exists on it.
Based on data I’ve compiled from pro-football-reference.com, I created an accurate representation of the current roster’s playoff experience. It might surprise many of you to hear that the players on the current Ravens roster have a combined 148 playoff appearances and 63 wins. Those numbers look impressive at first glance but only exist because the playoff experience is concentrated at the top among veteran players. Only players on the Ravens’ roster with five or more years of experience in the National Football League have played in multiple playoff games. No player on Baltimore’s roster with four or fewer years of experience has ever won a single playoff game. In fact, the average amount of playoff games played in is just 2.79 (roughly three) among current Ravens, and the average amount of postseason wins is less than half that, at 1.19 (roughly one).
Even more concerning numbers can be seen when one examines the medians. For those who do not remember their third-grade math classes (everyone, basically) a median is the middle number(s) in a sorted series of numbers. It is different than an average which adds all the numbers of the sequence together and divides by the total number of entries into that sum. Medians can be useful because they limit the impact of outliers, like, in this case, Sam Koch and his 17 playoff appearances and 10 wins.
The median number of playoff appearances is just one, and the median number of playoff wins is zero.
The absence of playoff experience runs in stark contrast to the scenario the last time Baltimore won the Super Bowl. The Ravens went to the playoffs four consecutive years before clinching their fifth consecutive postseason berth in the 2013 playoffs. Since the championship, the Ravens returned to the playoffs just twice, once in the 2015 postseason, and once in last year’s playoffs. Only seven players from that Super Bowl-winning team are still on the Ravens roster, and only three more from the 2015 postseason are still with the Ravens as well.
So, is this a problem?
Well, George, to answer your question, Baltimore’s lack of postseason experience is the team’s Achilles heel, but it is a factor unlikely to be exploited.
Why? Here’s why.
Playoff inexperience can lead to playoff failure. The postseason’s atmosphere is completely different than the regular season. Its win or go home nature coupled with the fierce level of competition it brings is unlike any other experience. It cannot be replicated. It’s very possible that the Ravens could be ill-prepared for the playoffs, despite John Harbaugh’s excellent coaching, simply because the team simply lacked the experience necessary to respond to high-pressure, unexpected playoff scenarios. Let’s say a more experienced team took advantage of Baltimore’s playoff inexperience and jumped ahead by 14 points in the first quarter. How would the Ravens respond?
That situation could happen this postseason, and honestly, we don’t know how the young and inexperienced Ravens would respond. However, I find it very unlikely that the Ravens would find themselves exploited by their inexperience in the 2020 postseason, simply because no other team in the American Football Conference playoffs have much experience either.
I waited to write this article this week because this part of the answer deals with the relative experience of other playoff teams in the conference, and with the playoff king, Tom Brady, officially out of the race, the AFC is left devoid of very experienced teams. Baltimore’s next opponent, the Tennessee Titans have one other playoff appearance in the last ten years (since 2010). The playoff drought that lasted since 2009 was quenched in the 2017-2018 regular season. The Titans, led by Marcus Mariota, snuck into the playoffs as a wildcard team and won a game in Kansas City against the Alex Smith-led Chiefs, in an epic game I am sure most of you remember. But aside from that game and this year’s playoff win in New England, the Titans have no other experience, nor do they even have the same quarterback.
The Houston Texans do not have much playoff experience either. Since Bill O’Brien took over the team in 2014, the Texans have gone to the playoffs four times including this year. O’Brien consistently brings the Texans into the postseason, but rarely does he find success. Prior to this year, the Texans had just one win under O’Brien in the playoffs, a 2017 victory against the Oakland Raiders without Derek Carr. If not for the Buffalo Bills’ major choke-job (with help from the officials, of course), the Texans would be 1-4 since 2015. Houston has never won a divisional-round game, under O’Brien or anybody else. Houston has experience being in the playoffs, but how valuable has that really been? The Texans don’t tend to improve much after an early playoff defeat. It’s also worth noting that this is DeShaun Waton’s only second year in the playoffs, so Houston’s most important player lacks the fundamental experience in question.
Finally, there’s the Kansas City Chiefs, the team with, by far, the best playoff résumé in the conference. Since Andy Reid joined the Chiefs in 2013, the Chiefs have appeared in the playoffs six out of seven seasons. But like the Texans, the Chiefs have not found much success in the playoffs. Andy Reid is 2-5 in the postseason as the Chiefs’ head coach, and many have questioned whether he can get the Chiefs over the hump and into the Super Bowl. Kansas City almost did that last year, but a late-game comeback by Tom Brady and the Patriots in the conference championship squashed that dream. Of all the quarterbacks remaining in the AFC playoffs, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes is the only one to ever play in a conference title game, but he has yet to win it.
There’s one more factor I want to touch on in this examination: the disaster that was last year’s playoff game against the Chargers. Lamar Jackson played his worst game as a quarter ever, and the Ravens lost because of it. The absolute catastrophe of that game crushed the hearts of fans everywhere, and even players felt the effects of the crushing defeat. But that game is more than just a stain on Lamar Jackson’s career and the Ravens as a whole. It was a learning experience. The Ravens are much more prepared in 2020 because they were demolished in 2019. Playoff hesitation will be gone. The Ravens are not going to be scared of losing, Baltimore will be seeking to avenge their failure through triumph.
So, George, to answer your question in short, the Ravens’ Achilles heel is playoff inexperience, but because of the playoff landscape, it might not matter too much. Furthermore, the single-game experience in last year’s playoffs provides a valuable learning experience for the Ravens, one that Lamar Jackson and the rest of the team will never forget and never cease to improve from. I’m not so worried about another disaster on the horizon, and neither should you be.